Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reviled, tolerated, bulldozed, born again: tent cities just keep on coming

What's it really like to be homeless? To live in a tent city, or a homeless shelter or a car? Do you really have to want to know? You can't find out just by looking; you have to be willing to dig, and that's just what Mark Horvath of InvisiblePeople.tv is planning to do over the next six weeks. According to Change.org, he's going to twenty different cities in forty-nine days to "unearth the modern-day realities of homelessness while providing a venue for "invisible" people to tell their story, raw and unedited."

Mark won't be going to the tent city in East Palo Alto, California because bulldozers cleared out the dozen or so people living in dry-grass marshland at the end of June so the owner can sell the property. the owner says that he fears fire, because two years ago a homeless woman died when her campfire set the grass ablaze. The two dozen people camped by a creek in Merced, California will probably be gone by then, too, because the Merced Irrigation District (MID) needs to clear brush.

"I don't think it's up to MID to solve the homeless problem. We've got enough problems supplying the water," MID board member Jack Hooper said. Merced Sun-Star.

If Mark goes to the Catholic Worker House in Champaign, Illinois, he'll find himself in the middle of dispute inside and out: the neighbors aren't happy with the eight tents occupied by homeless people in the back of the CWH property. Inside the house, the nineteen people who live there permanently find themselves bitterly criticized by the homeless, advocates and some volunteers because they discontinued a Sunday lunch for more than 120 homeless people. Of course they're still providing lunch on the other six days of the week--the residents just wanted one day for themselves.

The tent city in Lakewood, New Jersey might not have turned into a little farming community by the time Mark arrives, but it's one of the options on the table. Five months after the city ordered the camp cleared and residents placed in housing, none of the relocation possibilities have actually happened. One community group helping the tent city residents is asking for a little piece of land where residents can raise chickens and vegetables and live in peace. Matzav.

The Catholic Church-run tent city in St. Petersburg, Florida will probably seem like a little bit of heaven to Mark. At the end of a dead-end street, 250 people live in 250 tents and the camp, called Pinellas Hope has showers, a dining hall and a laundry room. Thank God it doesn't get cold in St. Petersburg.

Back in California, Mark will have missed the march of 25o homeless people protesting at City Hall in Sacramento because the city destroyed their tent city three months ago. Loaves and Fishes, the non-profit agency that is helping to organize the march, is being treated with quite a degree of cynicism by some in the homeless community. Tom Armstrong of Sacramento Homeless wants to know why, if the Loaves and Fishes Director was so opposed to the closing of the tent city, she wasn't willing to risk arrest before the tent city was closed, rather than after?

Tomorrow was supposed to be the deadline for the last of Fresno, California's tents (and homeless people) to be cleared from its H Street encampment, but the 50 or so remaining residents have been given one more week. About a quarter of the tent city's original residents have been placed in housing, another two dozen found housing on their own, many have just disappeared, but many remain. Fresno is waiting for stimulus funds to implement plans to target smaller encampments around the city.

If Mark Horvath could move at nearly the speed of light, and was willing to spend a year on his quest, he could talk to every one of the 3.5 million people who are expected to spend at least part of the calendar year without a place to live.

If you have suggestions for where Mark can stop on his journey, email him at roadtrip@invisiblepeople.t.v

Photo by Lisa James from the Merced Sun-Star.

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